Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nine Lives (of the Poets): Marlowe!

Our book today is John Bakeless' wonderful 1937 classic, Christopher Marlowe: The Man in His Time which stands in my mind as the best biography ever written of this much-biographied young man.

Oddly much-biographied. Marlowe cut a huge swath through the London literary scene of his day, true, but by the standards of the Elizabethan writing-market, he produced very little work, and he died before he was thirty. The oblivion of footnotes seems the more likely fate for such a figure than the bright measure of fame posthumous fame he's enjoyed instead, and the discrepancy can only be chalked up to spicey rumor and innuendo. Marlowe was born in Canterbury in 1564 and got his B.A. from Corpus Christi, Cambridge, despite being often enough missing from college that he needed a written excuse from Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council to graduate - and that waiver has led to four centuries of speculation as to what he did to earn it: 'begging and pleading with any family connection who'd listen' has never been romantic enough, so Marlowe has been given a Batman-style second career as an espionage agent in the employ of the implacable Thomas Walsingham.

From 1587 to 1593, his plays - Tamburlaine 1 & 2, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, Doctor Faustus, and Dido - were produced and rapturously attended and idolized (a fact reflected in the pamphlets of the day and funnily sent up in the movie "Shakespeare in Love"). They gave to English letters and the English stage something almost thoroughly new, a "mighty line" that buried its own subtleties in a tidal wave of primary-color images and devastatingly powerful verse. Even now, in all of Western literature, there's no experience quite like reading Marlowe for any stretch of pages - the room starts to spin, and all things begin to seem possible.

Marlowe's posthumous reputation has benefited immeasurably from two things that have nothing to do with his work: the first is the portrait found at Corpus Christi College in 1953 and forever afterward taken to be the image of Marlowe as a handsome, proud, wastrel college student - it looks just exactly as we want Marlowe the literary rebel to look - and the second is the manner of his death, not only young but violent: stabbed in the forehead in May of 1593 by Ingram Frizer, one of the three men with whom he'd spent the day at an inn in Deptford. As Charles Nicoll demonstrates in his brilliant book The Reckoning, all three of the men in that room with Marlowe had connections with Thomas Walsingham and his equally enigmatic brother Francis, and inferences have been rife ever since that Marlowe's death was state-sanctioned, or even state-ordered. The fact that we'll almost certainly never know the truth of the matter only adds to the spice.

One of the many charms of this book is that Bakeless, despite being a Harvard-educated egghead, is also an unapologetically opinionated crank who has a fiercely-researched and often openly-irritated take on every aspect of his young subject's life and world. Spice doesn't deter him (although his book is something of a product of its time, in that Marlowe's fondness for tobacco gets a lot more attention than his fondness for teenage boys), nor does controversy, nor does the prospect of seeming like a crackpot. As a result, his irritated asides are often more entertaining than the subjects that inspired them, as with this little digression on the shoddy printing standards of today:
Our modern abomination of cheap wood-pulp paper was unknown in those happy days, and consequently the fugitive pamphlets in which Marlowe's plays and poems appeared, cheap as they were, had to be printed on good rag paper, which has endured the centuries unharmed. If cheaper paper had existed the early printers would undoubtedly have used it for little books like these, which were not in their day regarded as especially valuable. Practically all of Elizabethan literature would have crumbled into a fine yellow powder not later than the middle of the seventeenth century, the only exceptions being stray lyrics preserved in the manuscript commonplace books and the fortunate poets who, like Shakespeare, appeared in expensive printed folios. Without the good rag paper that went to make these queer old books, most of the great Elizabethan writers and all the lesser ones would have remained mere names. On such mechanical accidents do reputations in literature depend.

But Bakeless does have a big soft spot, and it's right where it should be: he's very partial to his chosen subject. He sees Marlowe's work - the whole spectrum of it - with a clarity that's often muddled or missing from later biographers, and he's perfectly willing to address the flaws of that work, but always in the context of the general genius of the man:
Of the gentleness of Shakespeare's humour - that humour which, seeing folly and being diverted with it, yet keeps a certain tenderness and tolerance for the fool - Marlowe had none whatever. Humour for Marlowe did not represent a saving sense of proportion. Humour could never enable this fiery spirit to laugh at the evils and injustices surrounding it. That is why those evils and injustices so galled and fretted this impassionate soul, drove it to wild, perilous freedom and forbidden speculation, to a philosophy of revolt against the state, against morals, against God himself.

Despite the brevity and murkiness of his life, Marlowe's going to keep generating books, and some very good ones have appeared since Bakeless (Park Honan's in particular stands out in my mind). The statistics-crawling exercise known as "Shakespearean studies" has yielded a few more likely instances where the Bard was paying sly tribute to the greatest of his contemporaries, and of course sociological studies proceed apace. And it's worth remembering that despite the brilliance of Bakeless' treatment of Marlowe's plays, we'd still be studying this young man even if those plays didn't survive, on the basis of his strengths as a poet alone, strengths that, after all, earned him his place in this series (Nine Lives of the Dramatists being reserved for another date, naturally). So it's fitting we close with one of those poems, a bit from one of his taut, dancing translations of Ovid:
Rude man, 'tis vain thy damsel to commend

To keeper's trust: their wits should them defend.

Who, without fear, is chaste, is chaste in sooth:

Who, because means want, doeth not, she doth.

Though thou her body guard, her mind is stained:

Nor, lest she will, can any be restrained.

Nor canst by watching keep her mind from sin;

All being shut out, th' adulterer is within.

Who may offend, sins least; power to do ill

The fainting seeds of naughtiness doth kill.

Forbear to kindle vice by prohibition,

Sooner shall kindness gain thy will's fruition.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Thanks for mentioning "The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe" by Nicholl? As someone with very little knowledge of the personalities or the times, I thought it was a pretty impressive assemblage of material. I esp. liked that the chapters were short! I needed the rest after ingesting so many facts and figures. Although you do seem to hint that there might be wild speculation and wish-fulfillment among Nicholl's brilliance.

I saw on that a second edition had been released with some new info or revisions of some kind. But I haven't had the time/money to investigate.